First look at Microsoft's Tablet PC

For all the hype that Bill Gates has been generating around the Tablet PC concept, you could be excused for thinking the idea is a new one for Microsoft Corp. But in fact, it's a second go-round for the company, years after its ill-fated "Windows for Pen Computing" experiment a decade ago. The current software shows that Microsoft has learned from its mistakes.

The company is expected to officially launch its Tablet PC Nov. 7, with participation from major laptop vendors and Asia-based original design manufacturers.

Soft Touch

The operating system is Windows XP Professional Tablet Edition, a superset of the standard XP Pro. Microsoft has added a program called Microsoft Journal, which is intended to be a note-taking replacement for the pad of paper you would typically take to a meeting. Everything you write on the pad is stored as graphics—called digital ink—unless you highlight an area and ask the machine to recognize what you wrote. Then it takes its best shot at turning your scribbles into ASCII text. This actually works quite well, even on my often illegible handwriting.

Write on! Despite the hype, this useful machine is clearly more than just another laptop.
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Write on! Despite the hype, this useful machine is clearly more than just another laptop.
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Unlike with some other systems, you can't train this one to recognize your handwriting. In practice, however, I found that I started writing just a bit more carefully to get better recognition—in other words, the machine was training me.

Each page has a title area you can label, and if you call up a list of recently viewed pages, the index displays the handwritten title you gave each page.

It's easy to change colors and to highlight items as well as handwriting. If you need space between items you've already written, you can simply insert the space and drop the remaining text farther down the page. You can choose to erase as well as write, and if you "scratch out" something you wrote, that gesture gets interpreted as an erasure (though I sometimes had trouble getting this feature to work properly).

One very nice feature of Journal is the ability to start a page with any of several different stationery templates: lined "paper," graph-paper grids, calendar forms, memos. It's an obvious sort of thing that's incredibly handy.

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The TravelMate 100 converts from notebook to Tablet PC.
The TravelMate 100 converts from notebook to Tablet PC.
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The TravelMate 100 converts from notebook to Tablet PC.

To make fuller use of the tablet, users will be able to download software (Microsoft Office XP Pack for Tablet PC) that ink-enables the Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications in Office XP. This will let you insert handwriting into any document.

The Hardware

The machine I've been using is a preproduction Acer Inc. TravelMate 100, with a 10.4-in. screen, a 700-MHz Pentium III CPU, 256MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive and built-in 802.11b wireless Ethernet. At 3.2 lb., it looks like any small laptop when you first open it. But press a spring-loaded locking pin at each bottom corner of the hinge area, and you can rotate the screen panel 180 degrees and fold it flat again, now with the screen facing out, covering the keyboard. In this configuration, the machine is a hand-holdable slate or tablet.

When you use the tablet, several hardware buttons around the screen come in handy for reorienting the screen from portrait to landscape (and in either direction) and paging up and down, and there's even a button that does a Control-Alt-Delete so you can log back in after your tablet has gone to sleep.

Microsoft has specified that Tablet PCs shall use an electromagnetic digitizer for the touch screen, which means you can rest your hand on the screen without affecting anything or moving the cursor, and the stylus (which has a button on it) needn't actually come into contact with the screen.

I did encounter one major screen-related problem: To avoid reflections and glare, you must hold the screen so you're looking at it full on.

Judged simply as a laptop, the TravelMate 100 is decent but not earth-shattering. I'd much prefer to see a 12-in. screen, and the rather small keyboard has a mediocre touch. The prototype unit I worked with had only average battery life, especially when using the wireless network connection, but the goal is to allow a full workday's use of the tablet before needing to recharge. It seems unlikely that the first wave of Tablet PC machines will achieve this.

The Acer's physical layout is only one of many different formats we're likely to see as other vendors roll out their interpretations of the Tablet PC. All will include a keyboard, though on some that may be attached to a docking station rather than directly to the tablet. While the Acer is designed as a "road warrior" replacement, the more slatelike dockable models are aimed at what Microsoft calls "corridor warriors"—users who go from meeting to meeting.

Pricing hasn't been set, but Acer says the tablet format adds about 10% over the cost of a standard laptop. That would put the TravelMate 100 at just a bit over $2,000.

The Bottom Line

The Tablet PC's versatility can make it a big hit in the marketplace, but the trade-offs in the physical package could also limit its appeal for many. Much depends on the individual machine: Is it comfortable? Rugged? How bright is the screen? How heavy?

So we'll have to wait and see if this is another answer looking for a question, or if it's a real breakthrough in the way we use computers. In other words, the Tablet PC might mirror the success of its smaller cousin, the Pocket PC, or it could sink into obscurity like the first few generations of handheld Windows PCs.

Kay is a freelance writer in Framingham, Mass. Contact him at russkay@charter.net.

Acer TravelMate 100
Screen 10.4 in.
CPU 700-MHz Pentium III
RAM 256MB
Hard drive 20GB
Ethernet 802.11b wireless
Weight 3.2 lb.
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